Carver: A Life in Poems: Author Marilyn Nelson’s BGHB 2002 Fiction and Poetry Award Speech

by Marilyn Nelson

nelson_carver a life in poemsAbracadabra, alakazam, paz, salaam, shalom, amen

My deep thanks go to the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award selection committee, and to Stephen Roxburgh of Front Street Books, who saw the potential of my manuscript. Thanks, too, to Helen Robinson of Front Street, whose design made the manuscript a beautiful and informative book. Thanks, too, to Albert J. Price, Jr., of Beaumont, Texas. I’m often asked where I got the idea of writing a biography in verse, and how I decided to write about George Washington Carver. Al Price had a lot to do with that. In 1993 I had completed a book of poems, Magnificat, in which Ipresented a series of brief parables about a contemporary hermit monk, whom I called “Abba Jacob.” My study of this character’s striving to live a simple, holy life made me want to explore the entire arc of a lifetime lived in the struggle with sainthood. I did some reading, talked to some people, and decided to write about Hildegard of Bingen, a twelfth-century German nun. I got a grant and flew to Germany, where I visited the sites of the monasteries and convents in which Hildegard lived, and which she founded.

A few days after I got home from that trip, I was reading chapter one of a big hagiography of Hildegard and listening to a CD of music she had composed, when the phone rang. It was Al Price. I hadn’t heard from or of him since I was twelve years old.

When I was in sixth grade, my dad, an Air Force officer, was stationed in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, one of only two or three black officers on the base. Al was a young pilot stationed there, right out of college and flight school, and still wet behind the ears. That was forty years ago. Al said he had learned my whereabouts from some of the black retired Air Force officers I’d been in contact with as I wrote poems about the Tuskegee Airmen for my 1990 book, The Homeplace. He happened to be driving through the New England area and asked if he could stop by.

We sat on my porch for about twenty minutes drinking lemonade and chatting, then Al had to hit the road. Before he drove away, he opened the trunk of his car and pulled out a brochure from the George Washington Carver National Monument, which he had visited a few days earlier. Handing it to me, he said I should go there and write a book about Carver.

I did not intend this to be a book for children. I wrote the poems as I always do, striving for clarity and truthfulness, and imagining an audience of grown-ups. As I always do, I sent poems as they appeared to poetry journals and anthologies, and as usual I planned to ask Louisiana State University Press, which has published five of my earlier collections, to add this book to its poetry series. But as the book grew I began to think it would be nice if it could be illustrated. L.S.U. poetry books are not illustrated. Thus it went to Front Street Books, to my profound and lasting delight. Front Street decided the audience for my book was ages twelve and up. Who knew?

For several of my younger years, as a visiting artist for the Connecticut Commission on the Arts, I conducted poetry workshops in elementary schools. I learned from those workshops that children are an ideal listening audience, and the verses we composed together were rollicking expressions of shared joie de vivre. But the workshops were so much fun that only rarely did the children’s capacity for quiet thought emerge. In one notable instance a group decided to compose a poem about their fear of the Bomb. For eight rhyming and metrical lines they listed things they didn’t want to lose:

my mom and my dad,
my swing-set, my dolls,
my kitty, my blanket, my friends.

Then, with a little steer toward optimism, we concluded the poem with a list of magic words, in a spell to bring the world peace:

Abracadabra, alakazam, paz, salaam, shalom, amen.

As I write, the human world seems to be teetering on the brink of chaos. The radio news is filled with speculative questions: How far will they go? How deep is the evil in the human heart?

As George Washington Carver lived, the human world — which at that time was smaller and less intimately connected — also seemed to be teetering. I learned a great deal about the Professor’s answers to similar questions, and couched his truths in images I hoped any reader, young or old, would be able to understand. Adults reading “Bedside Reading,” my poem about his meditations on the hope born of slavery’s despair, may recognize in it a glimpse at recent discoveries made in chaos theory, among which is the fact that chaos, seen from a distant-enough perspective, resolves itself into a huge spiral. An adult reader might think of Yeats’s “widening gyre.” But I hope the image speaks for itself, for I believe the language poetry speaks is the language not of philosophy or science, but of the child’s heart, of the perceiving self. I found the message of my poem somewhere in Carver’s papers. In my poem the professor thinks:

When the ram bleats from the thicket,
      Isaac … like me … understands
the only things you can ever
    really … trust …
are …
      the natural order …
             … and the Creator’s love …
      spiraling …
out of chaos …

From those lines, whose words are placed on the page to draw the reader’s eye in a zigzag resembling a spiral, I hope any reader can understand, physically, as it were, what my persona of Carver is thinking, and what the actual Carver taught.

Many times since September 11, my thoughts have returned to the poem called “Goliath,” which versifies one of Carver’s weekly fifteen-minute Sunday school teachings, found in a reminiscence written years later by one of his former students. Asked, during a period of terrorist lynchings all over the American South, “Where is God now? What does He want from us?” Carver says, “Don’t yield to fear. / Fear is the root of hate, and hate destroys / the hater.” Then he says:

David slew
Goliath with the only things he knew:
the slingshot of intelligence, and one
pebble of truth.

Professor Carver’s message was — is — a message we need to hear again: a message of conservation, simplicity, humility, reverence, and nonviolence. The recent crisis has repeatedly taken me back to George Washington Carver. I have wondered why we’d rather drill for oil in the Alaskan wilderness than follow up on Carver’s inventions of peanut gasoline and motor oil. I have winced at the contrast between Carver’s generosity — he gave away most of his inventions, and lived as simply as a Buddhist monk — and the greed of American corporations and CEOs and the new McMansion middle-class. I weep at what American agricultural engineering has foisted on the world: high-yield crops that do not produce viable seeds, thereby enslaving farmers to the necessity of purchasing patented seeds year after year, while the fat cats consume mass quantities of low-fat foods. Again and again Carver’s life testifies to the best values of humankind. It is especially important, I think, that our children receive Professor Carver’s legacy. Perhaps it will ease their transition into the twenty-first century, showing them that the rewards of service are ultimately greater than the rewards of material gain. George Washington Carver was one of the heroes of my own childhood, and I am more than pleased to offer him in a new way to this next generation. The Boston Globe–Horn Book Award brings me to the humble gratitude Carver always felt, which made him feel he must give his life in service of the Creator who had so richly gifted him with genius and good luck. I describe Carver’s gratitude in a poem that will conclude my remarks and express my own gratitude:

“A Charmed Life”
Here breathes a solitary pilgrim sustained by dew
and the kindness of strangers. An astonished Midas
surrounded by exponentially multiplying miracles: my
Yucca and Cactus in the Chicago World Exposition;
friends of the spirit; teachers. Ah, the bleak horizons of joy.
Light every morning dawns through the trees. Surely
this is worth more than one life.

From the January/February 2002 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.
Horn Book
Horn Book

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